Book Review: Readings
Personal Days' themes of corporate downsizing and office malaise have been done before and done better
Reviewed by John Davidson, Fri., May 30, 2008
Personal Days: A Novelby Ed Park
Random House Trade Paperbacks, 256 pp., $13 (paper)
When did our literature begin taking its lead from film and television, rather than the other way around? And what, if anything, does it mean for our culture when prominent young members of the literary community take their inspiration from sitcoms?
Ed Park is the former editor of The Village Voice Literary Supplement and a founding editor of The Believer. Given such credentials, one sets upon his debut novel with a certain level of expectation. Yet in Personal Days, Park has elected to write a story that in all likelihood would never have found the page without the pre-existence of a well-known BBC television series. That series, The Office, barely survived translation from one culture to another, let alone from one medium to another. What's more, another book, published more than a year ago and to considerable acclaim – Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End – already took up themes of corporate downsizing and office malaise and created something far more original and literary. Still, if this book's middling execution rankles, it's the lack of ambition that truly disappoints.
So yes, Personal Days is set almost exclusively within the confines of an office. Though the names and faces of those who inhabit this particular office may be different, their stories are most familiar. Naturally there is an incompetent boss, blissfully unaware of his own ineptitude and of the scorn visited on him by a group of underlings. Then there are the underlings themselves – the great unfulfilled – overeducated men and women, sleepwalking through lives of corporate dread. Finally, there are the company heads: mostly invisible but always restructuring, reorganizing, visiting ruin on the lives of others.
Personal Days intermittently amuses but consistently lets down. And, contrary to the ambitious claims of the book's publicist, the modern argot employed is far from "Orwellian." Two hundred pages in, its author slips into a different gear (it's a downward shift), and the book veers helplessly toward the unreadable. A single, 40-page paragraph ensues, serving as both summation and explanation of all that's preceded it. At last, there is a sense of an author grown weary of his own book – and understandably so. Then we reach the end ... and I regret to say, not soon enough.